In light of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, taking place this year on January 20, Barna wanted to offer a list of resources for pastors and ministry leaders to access in preparation for sermons, programs and community events surrounding the historic significance of this day. MLK Day provides a crucial opportunity for Christians to be ministers of healing and justice, and we hope the years’ worth of Barna research offered below may be helpful as you and your ministry continue to understand the context of the conversations surrounding racism, social justice and reconciliation taking place around the country and within the Church.
Barna asked respondents whether they agree the history of slavery in the U.S. still has a significant impact on black Americans today. Half of practicing Christians (50%) “mostly or totally” acknowledge ongoing repercussions, slightly ahead of the proportion of the general population who feel this way (46%). Just over a quarter of practicing Christians (28%) says the U.S. has moved past this shameful part of its history, also on par with the national average (28%).
How should the Church respond in light of our nation’s 400-year history of injustices against black people? Though responses were fairly distributed, and multiple responses were allowed, 28 percent of practicing Christians say “there’s nothing the Church should do.” A full third of white practicing Christians (33%) selects this option, double the percentage of black practicing Christians who feel this way (15%). Instead, the plurality of black respondents (33%) has a clear next step in mind: repairing the damage.
A large majority of American adults says the amount of hate crime and hate speech (meaning, speech or crimes that are motivated by racial, sexual or other prejudice) has changed in the past five years; seven in 10 (70%) say this behavior has increased. Most attribute the change to the fact that politicians are encouraging or feeding this trend (65%). Similar majorities say social media and the internet have amplified it (62%) or that it is driven by America becoming increasingly more divided as a country (61%). More than half say the internet has provided a forum for hate groups to multiply (57%), that hate crime has increased because the news has drawn attention to it (54%) or even that it has become more socially acceptable to publicly treat others with prejudice (51%). Four in 10 believe increased diversity in America has caused fear or prejudice (37%). Only a few respondents say religious organizations amplify hatred (16%).
David M. Bailey is the founder and executive director of Arrabon, a ministry that equips churches and organizations to engage in the ministry of reconciliation with cultural intelligence. He is an active speaker, consultant and strategist for many national organizations. In an interview with Barna for 2017’s The State of Pastors project, Bailey offers wisdom about acknowledging cultural blind spots in ministry.
Why do lingering divisions exist in the Church, the very communities built on the promise of forgiveness and reconciliation? Finding racial unity in a congregation is a complex task that requires a deep recognition of racial differences in how Christians understand and express their faith. Here, Barna examines the divergent ways in which black and white Christians approach discipleship, individually and collectively.
In 2017, Latasha Morrison, a bridge-builder, reconciler, fellow abolitionist and compelling voice in the fight for racial justice, sat down with Mark Matlock to talk about her book, Be the Bridge: Pursuing God’s Heart for Racial Reconciliation. When asked about the Church’s role in racial reconciliation, Latasha notes, “I think the Church is supposed to be a place of healing and a distinctive and transformative voice in this conversation, but instead, as the Church, we’re seeing that we’re actually a part of the problem—we’re bringing chaos, turmoil and hurt into a lot of the conversations, versus healing and restoration. I think a lot of this is because we have centered the conversation on politics versus the message of Jesus, the gospel…. We need to start [the conversation] with Jesus and end with Jesus.”
In 2016, as Black Lives Matter gained momentum, a Barna study showed the movement was met with a mixed response. Millennials were most likely to support the message of Black Lives Matter (45%), but this support decreased with age (24% among Gen X, 20% among Boomers and 15% among Elders). The outliers were evangelicals and Republicans (especially compared to Democrats), both of which were significantly less likely than the general population to support the movement (13% of evangelicals and 7% of Republicans compared to 27% of all adults).
Also in 2016, Barna found that a slim majority of Americans agreed that police unfairly target people of color and other minority groups. More than half of all adults (53%) either somewhat or strongly agreed with the statement. Barna also asked about individual experience—whether respondents personally live in fear of police brutality. Most (78%) said they either probably or definitely do not live in fear of police brutality. The deepest divides though—for both questions—exist along lines of generation, ethnicity and religion.
On September 10, 2019, The Connected Generation project launched with the Faith for the Future webcast, a live, free event where leaders from Barna and World Vision revealed main findings—some sobering, some hopeful—uncovered by this global study. The team was joined by panels of experts and ministers as well as viewers from 88 countries and six continents. One of the key findings from this study uncovered the connected generation’s concern about issues such as racism and inequality, and offered insights on how the pursuit of justice factors into their identity and spirituality.
This special report assesses the nation’s reputation of racism, past and present. Through articles, infographics and commentary, Where Do We Go from Here? is intended to bring context to important conversations and contribute to a broader understanding of race relations in our present moment.
The post 10 Data-Driven Resources to Help Pastors Lead on Martin Luther King Jr. Day appeared first on Barna Group.
For over 30 years, the Church has trusted Barna’s data and insights to help leaders know their city and effectively minister within their context. While in years past Barna offered printed reports on cities, states and the nation, all of this data plus more is now housed on FaithView, an online Barna tool that allows subscribers to sort, filter and extract custom data specific to their mission and relevant to their area.
One of FaithView’s key features is data tracking, offering users a look at religious trends recorded by Barna over the last 18 years and providing invaluable insights into the growth and decline of various segmentations, whether filtered by generation, denomination, faith segments and more.
In recent reports, Barna (and other researchers) have noted that Christianity is on a steady decline while Americans’ identification with atheism continues to increase. Barna tracking data show that in 2003, just a little over one in 10 Americans claimed to be atheist, agnostic or of no religion (“none”) (11%), while over eight in 10 identified as Christian (across Barna’s faith segments, this included 7% evangelicals, 33% non-evangelical born again and 41% nominal Christians) and less than one in 10 affiliated with other faiths (8%).
Percentage points for all religious segments saw little to no shift over a decade, from 2003 to 2012—but by 2018, Christianity in the United States had witnessed a significant loss of followers, from 81 percent in 2003 to 72 percent in 2018. Meanwhile, the atheist / agnostic / none segment has seen the greatest increase of all groups analyzed, nearly doubling in size from 11 percent in 2003 to 21 percent in 2018.
Note: FaithView tracking data offers analytics in three-year bundles, as seen in the chart above, with the last year included in the bundled labeling the group. This allows Barna to offer a more robust sample size and effectively note data trends and changes over the years.
So, what is leading Americans to shy away from not only Christianity but other religions as well?
Barna has identified a number of trends that might attribute to this move toward secularization, which may spark concern for the spiritual well-being of the next generation. Among young adults, Gen Z teens are much less likely to assert religious identity than generations before them; some of the rise in atheism could be attributed to Gen Z entering adulthood, and the fact that they are, thus far, significantly more likely than older generations to claim no faith. Additionally, faith-sharing is falling out of favor with younger adults, even religious ones; almost half of practicing Christian Millennials (47%) believe that evangelism is wrong. Across the generations, three in 10 Gen X (27%) and one in five Boomers (19%) and Elders (20%) share this sentiment.
In a Q&A published in Reviving Evangelism, a Barna report conducted in partnership with Alpha USA, Dr. Mary Healy, Professor of Scripture at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, notes, “Many people in our time are affected by a kind of spiritual numbness. Beginning from childhood, they’ve been overstimulated, over-scheduled, over-indulged and overexposed to sexual content. They’ve been taught that self-fulfillment, sexual freedom and economic success are the highest values. So, they often seem to have lost interest in the most important questions of life: Why do I exist? What is my mission in life and how do I fulfill it? What is true love and how do I find it?”
“Many people today show indifference to these deeper questions, but no matter what, those questions are there beneath the surface,” Dr. Healy notes. “There’s no replacement for a real encounter with God’s power and the holiness of his people.”
Indeed, Barna studies have shown that personal connections to Christians can be even more impactful than experiences with the Church at large. Dr. Healy concludes, “I’ve seen again and again that when we are willing to take risks in faith as we evangelize, the Lord backs us up through the power of the Holy Spirit. The gospel is a message in words that addresses the human being’s capacity for truth, but it is also a message of power that brings people into a personal encounter with Jesus.”
This article was written using tracking data from Barna’s FaithView tool and research published in Reviving Evangelism, a Barna study conducted in partnership with Alpha USA. Subscribe to FaithView to discover current statistics relevant to your area, region or the nation. Purchase a copy of Reviving Evangelism to learn about the state of evangelism in America and compare the faith-sharing experiences of Christians and non-Christians.
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Barna’s largest project yet, The Connected Generation, conducted in partnership with World Vision, includes survey responses from 15,369 individuals in 25 countries and nine languages, offering faith leaders both a broader and more focused lens with which to understand young adults. While The Connected Generation gives a global overview of 18–35-year-olds around the world, Barna also set out to provide more specific profiles of the regions and nations surveyed for this project. These reports offer localized insights on the connectivity levels and religious disposition of Millennials and Gen Z in the 25 countries included in The Connected Generation, building upon the themes explored at a global level.
Through country-specific data and analysis, expert commentary and actionable field guides, the country reports help faith leaders begin to apply the research in their local ministries and communities. The United States report, now available, adds global comparisons and new dimensions to Barna’s decades of research on the state of faith in America. Featured contributors include pastors and leaders such as Sam Collier, Jeanne Stevens, Eugene Cho, Jason Ballard and Edgar Sandoval, Sr.
These local snapshots from Barna’s largest study to date began rolling out in November 2019, as Barna president David Kinnaman joined World Vision and regional experts in Australia and New Zealand for a series of live events contextualizing the findings from the global study and the launch of the Australia / New Zealand country report.
What are leaders gleaning from these more focused findings and field guides?
“The Barna / World Vision partnership and subsequent roadshow was a unique experience for World Vision in NZ,” says Jonathan Fletcher, Head of Partnerships and Community Growth for World Vision New Zealand. “We were able to support and enhance the mission of the church in ways many didn’t expect. As an expression of the church, we need the Church to be healthy and growing. The insights from the research were alarming, but David Kinnaman’s ability to communicate them in ways that were tangible, and hopeful were profound. Christian leaders of every denomination were left with an awareness of the enormity of the challenge but equipped with tools and inspired with hope to arrest its inevitability.”
“Christian leaders owe a big ‘thank you’ to Barna and World Vision for providing data that backs up what many of us suspected: Millennials are leaving the Church (or staying well clear of) in even greater numbers than their parents did,” adds Sam Bloore, Senior Teaching Fellow and Residential Host for Venn Foundation. “But we owe perhaps the biggest ‘thank you’ to those Millennials themselves, who have had the spiritual and emotional honesty to give us a timely warning that much of our church activity and focus has drifted away from that which produces resilient disciples of Jesus. The silver lining to the data is that the slow, unsexy work of discipleship—that allows the depth and richness of the gospel to work its way into and through a whole life—does still work! Just as it has for over 2000 years.”
For more information on country reports or to view analysis for your area, visit theconnectedgeneration.com, which will be updated throughout the year as more country reports are released. Visit the Barna shop to order your own copy of a country report.
If you haven’t already, watch the Faith for the Future webcast (available for free replay until March 1, 2020) to discover more key findings from The Connected Generation study. You can purchase the report or access a suite of related resources at theconnectedgeneration.com.
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“If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer.” —Hannah Arendt
With people spending hours on Instagram to tweak the lighting of a selfie or choosing only to post three vacation pictures from a camera roll of hundreds, it seems that everyone has become their own public relations officer seeking to publicize the very best version of themselves. Yet, despite all this effort to cast the most polished version of our lives into the newsfeeds of friends, family and coworkers, we can be painfully unaware of how the world actually perceives us.
That’s often the case not just for ourselves as individuals, but also the groups that we affiliate with in our community. Those associations can have a distorting effect on not just how we view our own lives, but also how we perceive groups with different beliefs than our own. That is no more acute than in the two most influential institutions in American life: politics and religion. The heated rhetoric that is bursting at the seams of cable news and social media seems to reinforce the goodness of one point of view, while assuming the worst about anyone who holds a different opinion.
Ground zero for this phenomenon is the modern perception of American evangelicals. The term has become a lightning rod in American society. While Republicans and conservative Christians see a group that does its best to live out the gospel message and love those around them, Democrats and people from other faith groups often characterize evangelicals as narrow-minded bigots attempting to stifle progress in the U.S. But what does the average American think of evangelicals?
Barna put a survey in the field days after the 2018 midterm elections to assess how evangelicals are viewed by the American public at large. As a political scientist, I am becoming increasingly convinced that Americans view evangelicals as a distinctly political phenomenon and, as such, understanding how political partisanship shapes views of this group seems especially helpful.
While analyzing the data, I separated the sample into self-identified political affiliation—Republicans, Democrats and Independents—then calculated to find what percentage of each group views evangelicals in a positive or negative light. My initial hunch was quickly confirmed after some very simple analysis.
Only one in 10 Republicans (of any religious affiliation) sees evangelicals in a negative light, while nearly half say that they have a positive impression. Compare that to the results from Democrats—just one in five has a positive outlook on evangelicals, while four in 10 view them negatively. It’s also noteworthy that while political independents don’t perceive evangelicals like political partisans do, it’s clear that their opinions are closer to Democrats than to Republicans. The impression here is that the Republican viewpoint is unique among the American population.
In addition, the survey included 20 different terms that could possibly describe evangelicals. Using the partisan identification previously described, I calculated the share of each partisan group that checked the box beside each of the descriptors. The results provide some context for why Democrats view evangelicals more negatively, while Republicans have a warmer perception.
The terms chosen most frequently by Democrats were: politically conservative and religiously conservative, narrow minded, homophobic and uptight. The ones that Republicans selected were: religiously conservative (but not politically conservative), caring, hopeful and friendly. It would almost appear that these partisan affiliations are talking about two completely different religious groups. Democrats seem to be pointing out some of the worst qualities they perceive about evangelicals, while Republicans are quick to emphasize positive characteristics.
The one that is the most puzzling to me is that while Democrats believe that evangelicals are both religiously and politically conservative, Republicans are much less likely to believe that evangelicals are politically conservative. I think this illustrates a central fact in American politics: Each side perceives their political viewpoints as pragmatic and moderate, while the other political party’s platform is viewed as extreme. In essence, we’ve lost a sense of what the “middle” really means.
It would be easy for evangelicals to look over these results and immediately become defensive. Retorts like, “that’s just what the media / their friends / the world tells them to believe,” are often quick to roll off the tongue when confronted with data like this. However, I would recommend that evangelicals lay down their defenses and try, as best as they can, to put themselves in the shoes of those who think about the world differently than they do. As Hannah Arendt alludes, it’s easy to believe that the other side is being lied to, but it’s much more difficult to believe that we are lying to ourselves.
Evangelicals do have a perception problem. It’s fair to say that some of that is media-driven, but it would also be appropriate to say that some of it is self-inflicted. Often, the focus remains on the heated rhetoric and divisive language used by some people of faith to articulate their beliefs, when it should be on the simple, even unnoticed acts of kindness that evangelicals engage in daily.
There’s no simple way to fix this problem of perception. Instead, I am reminded of Paul’s admonition to the church in Galatia: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” The only way to change the narrative around evangelicals is for them to not grow tired of doing what is good.
Dr. Ryan Burge is an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University. He has published over a dozen articles in peer-reviewed academic journals as well co-founded the website Religion in Public (https://religioninpublic.blog), which is a platform for social scientists to make their work accessible to a wider audience. He is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Mt. Vernon, Illinois.
Data show that while a majority of young adults have delayed having children, there is a small percentage who have chosen to begin a family. Who exactly are the 35 percent of young adults who, unlike the majority of their peers, have children? Barna wanted to know more about this segment—who represent a growing minority of their generation, a counter to many stereotypes about young adults’ delayed adolescence and a fresh area of research. Below is a Q&A excerpt from The Connected Generation report featuring Dorit Reichstein Hejslet, Communications for Open Doors Denmark and mother to three children, and Konstantin Kruse, a pastor living in Germany and father to two children.
Barna: Do you think the approach of parents in your age group will be different from that of previous generations?
Dorit: We are scrutinized every day in the media about what we should and should not do in order not to screw up our kids. We are told that we as parents are solely responsible for our children’s mental and physical well-being, and we have to be almost perfect. There is a lot of shaming toward parents today. I have a hard time relaxing. I am constantly focused on doing my very best and that sometimes makes me a worried, anxious parent.
Barna: Do you feel different from non-parents in your generation?
Konstantin: Many of my closest friends are also in my generation and have kids. I think differences between parents and non-parents in my generation are the differences in the amount of responsibility. When you have kids you spend your time, energy and money differently. Parents are also typically not as flexible with the schedule as perhaps those without kids.
Barna: How has the responsibility of being a parent affected your faith practice?
Konstantin: The hope is that they see what a natural and authentic relationship with Jesus looks like—whether it is serving the community, leading in church or how I love my family. I understand that it starts with me being an example for my family so that they can see what it looks like to serve the Lord—and through this example they will then hopefully also know and serve him.
Dorit: It is so much harder to focus on singing, praying or listening to the sermon with kids at church. To be touched by the Word and the Spirit is hard because I am constantly interrupted. I have to give a word of encouragement to a fellow church member with my baby on my hip. It might not feel very holy or like it used to, but it is my kind of discipline and spiritual devotion, and I think God knows how devoted it really is.
Barna: As you think about the next 10 years, what would you like to see happen in your life?
Dorit: We are renovating an old house. It’s our dream to see this turn into a home and a base for us and our children. I want to bless others through our home. I want to settle in the town where we moved and plant deep roots, show love to this city, serve my neighborhood by showing them Jesus and his love.
Konstantin: In the next 10 years, I would like to support my wife in her calling and would love to see my kids loving Jesus and see the Church thriving. Personally, I would love to become a better leader and do my best to help others find their own purpose and calling in ministry.
There are plenty of conflicting stereotypes about Millennials: Are we the laziest generation or the hardest working? The most entitled or the most open-handed? The least religious or the most devout in new, misunderstood ways? The most connected or the least connected?
When we started The Connected Generation, we referred to it internally as “the global Millennials study.” It was presented to me as an opportunity to understand, test and, as needed, affirm or reject the messages we so often hear about the Millennial generation—my generation. This was one of my first projects since completing grad school and joining Barna Group, and I did not take this opportunity lightly. Working alongside our research partners at World Vision, under the guidance of David Kinnaman and with the greatest coworkers I could imagine, I was privileged to be the lead researcher and help create a first-of-its-kind study that would well represent this closely observed yet still misunderstood collection of young adults: The Connected Generation.
To be successful in this study, the first thing I had to do was push past preconceptions about the Millennial mindset and definition. As an Australian church leader reminded us during the early weeks of our work, the term “Millennial” has a lot of American connotations too often projected onto other nations. Similarly, given my background in sociology, I have always thought of my Millennial status as a bit of a dual personality. Which of my interests and qualities are innately mine, and which are products or projections of society? Is my daily, diagnosed battle with functional depression unique to me, or is it connected to the time and place in which I have been raised (or, perhaps, is it both)?
My job sometimes involves using data to separate stereotypes from truth, and being a Millennial sometimes feels like living in between the two. For me personally, it means fighting for what I love (OK, even if that includes vinyl records and avocado toast) just as much as it means rejecting the assumptions of laziness, self-righteousness and entitlement placed upon me by other generations. It means finding comfort in the fact that nearly a quarter of 18-to-35-year-olds around the world told us that they often feel “lonely and isolated from others,” reassuring me that I am not alone in my own struggles.
After 15,000+ online interviews across 25 countries in 9 languages, our team dug deeper into the truths about Millennials and their friends in the leading edge of Gen Z (specifically, adults ages 18 to 35). We produced a printed study of our key findings, debuted the research through a live webcast and crafted country reports that offer an opportunity for us to share a story of hope with church leaders around the world. It’s because of the latter that, in October of 2019—almost a year after the study’s conception—I presented findings from The Connected Generation to a group of just over 100 church leaders in Singapore. While the gathering in Singapore seemed small, it was incredibly symbolic and a reminder of the variety of experiences we had fought to capture through our research. I started my presentation by reminding attendees that while I may be the expert of this international study, they are the experts on faith leadership and young adults in their country. The church leaders attended not because someone from Barna Group traveled across the world to speak with them, but rather because someone had robust, representative data about young adults in their nation. No projections or stereotypes.
All of these experiences—conducting the research, being on the publication team, speaking on a panel for our Faith for the Future webcast, producing regional reports and traveling to Asia—have greatly impacted my view of Millennials. The Connected Generation has been an incredible opportunity to learn about not just the effects of global hyper-connectivity, but also the beautiful, diverse expressions of Christians around the world, within a single generation. Just as I charge this research to re-invent the generational narrative, I also have a healthier understanding of where I stand within it. Just as I reject some of the assumptions about my age group, I also now confidently embrace the story of a passionate, hopeful and resilient generation.
The post Barna Takes: Using Research to Counter Millennial Stereotypes appeared first on Barna Group.
The Connected Generation project launched with Faith for the Future, a live, free event where leaders from Barna and World Vision revealed the main findings—some sobering, some hopeful—uncovered by this global study. The team was joined by panels of experts and ministers, as well as viewers from 88 countries and six continents.
A key finding highlighted in the study is that only one in three young people (32%) says that “someone believes in me.” Below, read responses from some of the leaders who joined Barna during the webcast—available as a free replay until Nov. 1—as they speak into this astonishing statistic, share stories from personal experience and offer valuable applications for the Church.
Faith Leaders Comment on the Findings
“For me, that’s been one of the key things about my life is that at different points, older, wiser people have invested in me, said they believed in me and actually taken a risk on me. And that’s the reason I’m here today really, is that people have invested in me and taken a risk on me …
“One of the things I fear about the Church is that, generally speaking, the Church will naturally go up in age and inward in focus. And it’s only intentionally that it will downward in age and outward in focus. So, we want to go down and out, not up and in. And one of the ways that we can do that is by spotting and raising up and releasing people into their leadership potential.
“[Millennials] and Gen Z, they want to be involved, they want to be part of it, they’re open to engaging with the Church. But they want to have responsibility, they want to have ownership and they want to feel like they belong. And that’s an opportunity, I think, for the Church to not just criticize this generation and go after them, but to actually call out the best in them and help them to thrive and succeed.” –Stephen Foster, UK National Director at Alpha International
“That statistic is staggering, but I also can understand why it’s true because the man that mentored me and stepped into my life, I had to chase him. He was the director of one of the largest youth theater companies in the world, … his name was Freddie Hendricks. He was the first man, besides my father, that really let me know that greatness was available for me, that I had worth and that God could use my life to do some incredible things.” –Sam Collier, Communicator & Author
“I’ve been gifted with a lot of people who saw me differently than dominant culture. So that began with the woman from the Salvation Army who saw me—I was a juvenile delinquent addicted to crack with a massive attitude and a criminal record—and she kind of went all the way through all of those barriers and saw, I guess, Jesus in me, saw sacredness in me and called it out. And that led to an encounter I had with Jesus where I suddenly saw that God was for me and not against me. It wasn’t a long laborsome connection—it was really just someone who saw sacredness in me…” –Danielle Strickland, Speaker, Author & Social Justice Advocate
“I had many people who believed in me and I think that was the problem because by the time I got to college, they started to die and the circle of people who believed in me got a lot smaller. I was blessed enough to have a number of people, but it was very scary to see that my circle was shrinking. What does it mean to go from having eight people who have your back and love you, believe in you and want to see the best in you, to having six, and then four? And the more it shrank, the more I was freaked out.
“I had to realize that you have to build some relationships that aren’t going to be so organic. Like, every now and then, you might have to hunt someone down … and you have to actually go out there and create [relationships] and I think that’s difficult for Millennials. We have a hard time thinking we have to risk or put ourselves out there, possibly even be embarrassed behind getting someone to believe in us. So, I think the fact that we actually have to put in some work might really contribute to that [statistic].” –Rev. Brianna Parker, Founder & Curator of the Black Millennial Café
The post Who Believed in You? Leaders Tell Barna About Their Mentors appeared first on Barna Group.
I’m sure that many people have gone to church growth conferences or seminars that include lengthy discussions surrounding young people and how they fit into the future of American Christianity. A lot of those discussions likely center around making sure they come back to the church that they grew up in. That’s a key part of a church maintaining its membership, attendance and budget. Without the younger generation returning to faith, a church is left with a difficult growth strategy: winning over new converts. It’s incumbent upon churches to carry their legacy forward among the next generation.
It goes without saying that a healthy church is one that contains a good mix of age ranges. However, many vibrant churches look like a two-humped camel. They have a large and active youth group and a significant population of people who are either retired or close to retirement age. But what about those in the middle: people in their twenties, thirties or forties who often have children?
Understanding the Life Cycle Effect
Social scientists who study the relationship between age and church attendance have come up with a term to describe the way people move in and out of church as they grow older: the life cycle effect, visualized below.
If you’ll allow some generalizations, the life cycle effect is commonly explained like this: Typically, young people attend church at a fairly high rate as they move through their grade school and high school years. Often, this is because their parents require their attendance, though many also enjoy youth group trips and activities. However, as they graduate high school and move into college or career, large shares of them begin to drift away from home and many of the social institutions that were crucial in their early development. A young person’s twenties are usually filled with lots of volatility. We can assume this season often includes a lot of moves, job changes and romantic relationships.
Eventually, the lives of these young people begin to stabilize. They find a long-term partner, often marry, and usually have children. As their children move into school age, they want them to have the same type of moral foundation that they grew up with, so they head back to church. What happens to the parents as those children grow up and become adults? Either they realize that the Church fulfills a crucial role in their spiritual and / or social lives and become even more committed to their faith community—or they can’t wait until their kids move away so they can stop going to church on Sunday morning.
This life cycle effect is something that many pastors and church leaders bank on. They say to themselves: “Oh, don’t worry about those twentysomethings. Wait until they have kids. They will eventually come back.”
But is that really what’s going to happen? What does the data say?
I broke the General Social Survey into birth cohorts, which are five-year windows in which individuals were born. The theory here is that these groups of people experienced the same world events at basically the same age. (The Great Depression probably had a much different psychological and political impact on a 20-year-old than a 60-year-old, for instance. Cohort analysis takes that into account.) Then I calculated the average church attendance for each birth cohort in age groups ranging from 18–25 to those 65 and over. That’s displayed below with 95 percent confidence intervals indicated by the shaded ribbons. This graph is just the “Baby Boomer” generation.
Notice anything consistent? There’s that trademark hump when each birth cohort moves into the 36–45 age range. That’s exactly what the life cycle effect would predict: People settle down, they have kids, and they return to church. But what about the younger generations?
The graph below are the birth cohorts from 1965–1969 to 1980–1984. Notice anything different about these lines? The hump is there in the oldest birth cohort, just like it was in the prior graph. But things started changing around 1970. That trend line is completely flat—those people didn’t return to church when they moved into their thirties. You can see the beginnings of a hump among those born between 1975 and 1979, but in the next birth cohort the hump is actually inverted. That trademark “return to church”—which pastors and church leaders have relied on for decades—might be fading.
Intentionality Is Key When Reaching Young Adults
This should sound an alarm for people concerned with church growth. Many pastors are standing at the pulpit on Sunday morning and seeing fewer and fewer of their former youth group members returning to the pews when they move into their late twenties and early thirties. No church should assume that this crucial part of the population is going to return to active membership as their parents once did.
I think one path forward is for churches to become intentional about providing welcoming and engaging spaces for parents of infants and toddlers. Things like free childcare during the worship service should be just the beginning. Events that allow exhausted parents the chance to talk to other people their age without having to watch their children like hawks would be a welcome relief. Churches should be encouraging groups like “Mothers of Preschoolers” (MOPS) to meet in their spaces. If young people think that going to church is just going to consist of trying to keep their toddler from screaming the entire time, then staying home seems like a good option. And, if they find a church to be a welcoming space when their children are still toddlers, it stands to reason that they will be more likely to continue their attendance as their children grow older.
The data is speaking a clear message: the assumptions that undergirded church growth from two decades ago no longer apply. If churches are sitting back and just waiting for all their young people to flood back in as they move into their thirties, they are likely in for a rude awakening. Inaction now could be creating a church that does not have a strong future.
Dr. Ryan Burge is an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University. He has published over a dozen articles in peer-reviewed academic journals as well co-founded the website Religion in Public (https://religioninpublic.blog), which is a platform for social scientists to make their work accessible to a wider audience. He is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Mt. Vernon, Illinois.
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Whenever Barna releases findings from a study, one of our aims is that it might be easy to glimpse the person behind the percentage. Our goal is that readers wouldn’t engage with the findings from a distance, but would be able to recognize their neighbors, their congregations, their families—and, yes, themselves—in the research. That can be an aha moment, when the numbers and tables become animated by one’s context, and that’s when, we hope, the research might be turned into action.
Our own team is not immune to this effect. I’d have to try hard to not see myself in the work. Some examples from recent projects and partnerships: For our Households of Faith study, I was challenged to find myself represented among the “couple households,” a comfortable group that, the data suggest, have to be quite intentional about incorporating spiritual rhythms and hospitality into their routines. In our Christians at Work report, I was heartened to align myself with ambitious Millennials who want to find their callings and infuse their careers with meaning. Most recently, The Connected Generation—Barna’s largest project yet—inevitably became an introspective effort for myself and some of my Millennial and Gen Z coworkers, as we partnered with World Vision to survey 15,000+ of our generational peers (18–35-year-olds) in 25 countries around the world.
One of the major findings from this international study struck, but did not surprise, me: Young adults today are, well, a little tense. Anxiety about important decisions, uncertainty about the future and fear of failure are among respondents’ most commonly reported emotions. These worries are often tied up in vocation, relationship status or financial means—all things that tend to be unsettled for this age group. Near-constant connection to and emotional investment in what’s going on around the world is a defining trait of my generation, but more personal, supportive connections aren’t quite so common; only one in three young adults feels someone deeply cares for or believes in them. People of faith may experience stronger community or well-being, the data show—but Barna has long documented this generations’ barriers to belief, including questions about human suffering or a feeling that communities of worship just aren’t appropriately speaking to big issues or daily life.
In short: I get it. Anxiety has been a pattern throughout my life, growing more pronounced in my adulthood. Beyond trying to crack the mystery of my mental health, when I look at my relationship to others, to the news, to productivity, to sleep and to devices, I can acknowledge the ways this digital age and my own age might aggravate the condition. Staring down, treating and learning to deal with my anxiety is a day-to-day effort, at times an urgent one. So I, too, have been disappointed on the occasions when I’ve witnessed people in the Church fumble discussions about anxiety, or shrug off a “generational angst” without delving into some of the issues (spiritual, psychological, societal, etc.) that might fuel it.
Thankfully, I can also attest to the power and relief of being in faith communities that have addressed these topics well—thoroughly, compassionately, holistically. One example comes from my own father, a pastor in Florida, who did a series of teachings on anxiety earlier this year. After validating the subject from the pulpit over multiple weeks, the church provided attendees with booklets including scriptures, readings and resources to take home and return to.
And I’ll never forget a Lenten service at my church in Nashville last year in which, in lieu of a sermon, we spent the morning meditating on and singing of peace—as well as its absence. We were asked to ponder: What is peace? Do we believe it is even possible today, as we consider the headlines, as we weather the storms in our own lives, in the nation and around the world? The service didn’t rush to feel-good messages or quick fixes. Instead, it allowed room for us to sit in silence, which was challenging at points. But I left feeling less alone. No small thing, the research tells us.
Working on this study, it was difficult to chronicle—and relate to—the doubts, isolation and anxiety plaguing many young adults around the world. I can understand that some might feel an urge to either despair over or dismiss these uncomfortable realities. But I hope faith leaders can go deeper, and young adults like myself need them to. More than disembodied data, these findings represent the experiences of the bulk of a generation—and act as reminders to receive and make the peace we are offered in Christ, the kind we’re told passes understanding and guards our hearts and minds.
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Friends of Barna:
Many of you may remember when Barna president David Kinnaman’s wife, Jill, was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2017. Since completing her treatment, Jill has had regular MRIs to monitor any changes, and she’s been sailing along with nothing to report.
This week, however, Jill’s scan showed two small areas of tumor growth on the left side (her previous tumor was on the right hemisphere). We are so thankful for those regularly scheduled MRIs! Jill has had no symptoms to indicate any change, so the scan has made it possible for the oncologist to detect cellular changes at an early stage. In fact, the doctor has cleared her to go on a long-awaited trip to Australia and New Zealand this month with David and their son, Zack.
Would you pray with us for Jill, David and the whole Kinnaman family? Pray for their precious time together on this once-in-a-lifetime trip, that they would comfort and encourage each other—and have some epic fun! Pray for wisdom as they decide with Jill’s doctors what course of treatment to take. Pray that they draw close to Jesus and seek him at every step, especially when the way isn’t clear.
Thank you for walking alongside the Kinnaman family and the Barna team as we follow Jesus through this season! As you might expect, David and Jill will be focused on her treatment and their kids, so please check the website www.prayforJill.com for updates from the family.
Thank you for praying.
The Barna team